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Putin's Rival Alexei Navalny In A Coma After Suspected Poisoning

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

One of the fiercest critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin is in a coma in a hospital in Siberia. His colleagues believe that Alexei Navalny was poisoned. Two years ago, Navalny tried to run against Putin in presidential elections, but he wasn't allowed to register as a candidate. For the latest, we're joined now by NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Hey, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So how much do we know about what happened? I mean, how did Navalny end up in a hospital more than a thousand miles east of Moscow?

KIM: Well, this morning he was flying back to Moscow from Siberia with his press secretary, Kira Yarmysh. He felt ill, lost consciousness, and the plane had to make an emergency landing in the city of Omsk where he was taken to a hospital. The doctors there had been pretty tight-lipped, but Yarmysh spoke to a Moscow radio station this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIRA YARMYSH: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: She said she's sure Navalny was poisoned and that this was already the second time. She says the first time was a year ago when he was doing jail time during protests in Moscow. The official diagnosis back then was that he had an allergic reaction.

CHANG: OK. So as we said, Navalny has been a leading critic of Putin for several years now. Can you just tell us more about who he is and what he has said about Putin?

KIM: Sure. Navalny is probably the most colorful and prominent opponent President Putin has had in his 20 years in power. Navalny is an anti-corruption campaigner and politician. But what makes him so successful is his mastery of social media and grassroots organizing. Even as you mentioned his presidential campaign went nowhere, he has a nationwide network of activists and, thanks to the Internet, really a reach to the farthest corners of Russia. It's fair to say that Navalny, who is 44, has inspired and really energized a new generation of Russians who view their government very skeptically.

CHANG: Well, it is well-known that many people who have crossed the Kremlin have been poisoned. So does this case with Navalny fit into that larger pattern you think?

KIM: Well, unfortunately, there is a long list of Russians who have fallen ill or even died after being poisoned. The most recent example, of course, is the incident in Salisbury, England...

CHANG: Right.

KIM: ...Where a former Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned and that was just the latest of several incidents just in the U.K. In Russia, a number of opposition figures have also been poisoned. The Kremlin, for its part, says it's way too early to say that Navalny was poisoned. Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, spoke to reporters today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DMITRY PESKOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: He said the Kremlin is monitoring the situation and that, if necessary, the Kremlin doesn't have anything against Navalny getting treatment abroad as any Russian citizen has the right to do.

CHANG: Now, I understand that there are plans to evacuate Navalny to Germany for treatment there.

KIM: Possibly. Earlier today, one of Navalny's doctors said that he hoped Navalny could be treated in a clinic in France or Germany, not because Russian doctors wouldn't be able to cure him but because the chances are much higher foreign doctors will be able to get to the bottom of what caused his illness. Later, we heard from the leaders of Germany and France that they are ready to help provide him with medical care, even political asylum. And now activists in Germany who helped treat another Russian poison victim say they have a plane ready to go and get him as soon as the Russians give him permission.

CHANG: That is NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Thank you, Lucian.

KIM: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.